Drama of 'Survival Sunday' won't work in MLS

The incredible drama of ‘Survival Sunday’ presented by multiple American networks to showcase the final day of English Premier League play won’t be seen on these shores any time soon, if ever.

We like our championship showdowns guaranteed, no matter how riveting and dramatic were the scenes at the Etihad Stadium when Manchester City scored twice in stoppage time to beat Queen’s Park Rangers, 3-2, and nick the title away from Manchester United on goal difference. (Set aside the very notion that a championship could be determined by doing the math, rather than an actual playoff.)

There is a slim segment of American soccer fans who honestly believe that a single-table soccer league without playoffs would prosper, and no doubt they will cite Man City’s remarkable comeback and delirious celebrations as evidence. The rest of us say, with great admiration of what City accomplished, “How exciting. How quaint.  How un-American.”

I like the concept of a regular-season title decided via a fair and balanced schedule, and I know well the incredible tension and drama of relegation. Those scenarios won’t happen in this country, where multi-million dollar investments cannot be torpedoed by a poor season, and anticipation builds for months leading up to the Super Bowl or the World Series.

As that noted sports philosopher Kasey Keller said a few years ago, ‘There’s no way you can tell Jerry Jones [owner of the NFL Cowboys] that if he has a bad season he’ll be playing Fort Worth and San Antonio in a Texas league.” And even if there were a Texas League, it would not include the Cowboys no matter how many games they lose.

In American professional sports, participation in a professional sports league is a function of purchasing power. The NFL, for example, is in effect a high-stakes gambling table. As long as you can keep betting, you can keep playing. Once funds run too low, however, or you just get tired of the game and the other players at the table, you vacate your spot. If you’re on the outside looking in but expansion isn’t on the horizon and no teams are up for sale fall within your price range, tough luck.

There’s no way to buy a team cheap -– say in the Arena Football League, or maybe Triple-A baseball -– and play your way into the top flight, which has been done for decades in foreign soccer leagues. The most spectacular example occurred in the 1970s, when music icon Elton John bought his boyhood club, Watford, which under his largesse rocketed from the Fourth Division – the lowest tier of professional competition – to the First in just five years. (This was before the Premier League was formed in 1991.)

Watford hasn’t been able to regain a regular place in the top flight. Some teams bounce back and forth, some teams never go back up after being relegated, and a few – like Leeds United, which has nearly gone bankrupt more than once – need a long time to re-stabilize after dropping.

Maybe that is why for the past decade, Premier League teams have been snapped up by wealthy men outside of England. Rather than start off modestly with a lower-division club and build their way to success, these entrepreneurs have bought right into the big time. Lower-division teams still change hands, too, of course, but given the staggering sums required to play at the Premier League table, and the devastating financial and emotional costs of relegation, ascendancy to the top tier is not necessarily ingrained into the business plan.

But the risk of relegation, except for the very richest clubs, cannot be bought out. While the well-heeled Man City owners celebrate the huge bet they’ve cashed, those in charge of Blackburn – the poultry processing firm Venky’s -- ponder a restructuring along with life in the League Championship. They are already fending off rumors of an impending sale and major clear-out of players, and last week dismissed CEO Paul Hunt when an e-mail he’d sent recommending the firing of manager Steve Kean was leaked to the press.

As for promotion, well, a form of it already exists in MLS. Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have moved up from the lower divisions, aided of course by wealthy investors.  There’s competition amongst several cities to be ready just in case that second team in New York starts looking like a work-in-progress that always will be. Maybe Orlando assembles the financial and structural elements to buy a seat at the table, but that’s the only way it will get there no many how many titles it wins.

The only trap door in lieu of relegation, since the 2001 contraction of Miami and Tampa Bay isn’t likely to recur, is a team moving, as per San Jose-to-Houston at the end of 2005. Chivas USA seems to be a candidate and perhaps the only one, since the Revs aren’t going anywhere, and despite struggles at the gate Dallas, Columbus and Colorado have soccer-specific stadiums.

MLS has flourished with playoffs and without relegation. What works elsewhere won’t work here, no matter how riveting the scenes and how excruciating the pressures.

17 comments about "Drama of 'Survival Sunday' won't work in MLS".
  1. Richard Broad, May 14, 2012 at 10:24 a.m.

    As usual, Ridge has valuable, well-reasoned insights about the unique situation of soccer in the US.

  2. Bill Anderson, May 14, 2012 at 10:58 a.m.

    Although Ridge may be correct in the analysis that it won't happen here, doesn't mean anybody has to like it or agree. The mentality that it is "never going to happen here" is quaint considering that is EXACTLY what was said about the entire league only a short time ago. So, for all of those looking for a single table, promotion, and relegation "walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart 'tho your dreams be tossed and blow, walk on, walk on, with hope in your hear, and you'll never walk alone".

  3. Bill Anderson, May 14, 2012 at 11 a.m.

    Sports Management and Promotion 101:
    Differentiate Yourself From Your Competition.

  4. Jeff Callan, May 14, 2012 at 11:15 a.m.

    How about this? As MLS continues to grow, we could get promotion/relegation between and MLS1 and MLS2 ... Once we hit 24 teams, split it into 2 divisions, and have pro/rel between them. MLS Cup is for the first division. Promotion playoffs in the 2nd division. You could even have relegation playoffs at the bottom of the first like some countries do. You still get your playoff games, but with something more at stake, which would raise attendances at playoffs, which have traditionally lagged. Excitement would increase as teams battle for spots in MLS Cup playoffs, try to avoid relegation to MLS2, and fight for promotion up to MLS1. Still 1 league with 1 TV contract, but some real competition all over the table, not just fighting for the last playoff spots.

  5. Robert Lopez, May 14, 2012 at 11:53 a.m.

    No, American Sport Owners like playoffs because it means more $$$$. Playoffs are ridiculous

  6. I w Nowozeniuk, May 14, 2012 at 12:26 p.m.

    Relegation in MLS is a mute argument. It will never happen because the play-offs offer extra revenue incentive and owners won't tolerate it. What needs to be addressed is how to better reward the top point getter of the regular season in the playoffs. Perhaps a two game series should start at home and be decided on the away goal rule leading to the one game final.

  7. Raymond Reel, May 14, 2012 at 12:39 p.m.

    Pretty much sums up why I hardly bother with American sports anymore and cannot truly get behind MLS.

  8. Travis Bell, May 14, 2012 at 1:16 p.m.

    Promotion/Relegation will never ever ever ever work in the US. I don't know why people bother talking about it.

    HOWEVER, single table CAN work. There isn't any reason to have conferences. You end up with an unbalanced schedule and a poor distribution of playoff teams. The last THREE years, the Eastern Conference champions were a Western Conference team because the East was weaker than the West. Go single table.

    Each team plays each team home & away. The top 6 teams make playoffs & the next 4 have a playoff run for the remaining 2 spots. Or even make it just the top 8 make playoffs. It's the best of both worlds: the money from playoffs and the excitement of single table.

    Make it happen MLS!

  9. Brian Something, May 14, 2012 at 1:51 p.m.

    There’s a fundamental tension between what’s most fair (the best team winning) and what’s most exciting (have the most teams with a shot to win). The irony is that while most of the time, a playoff system is more exciting, the league system is what produces the most exciting outcome.

  10. Andrea Hana, May 14, 2012 at 3:30 p.m.

    Not to say that relegation would not "work" in the US, but to say that, basically, it won't fly. They won't implement it, too risky for the guys with the big bucks. However, I like Callan's idea of a second league or just, as Bell said, get rid of the East/West Conferences. What is this, guys, American football? Or FOOTBALL? At any rate, definitely need to get rid of the Conferences. What a screwed up schedule this year!

  11. Kent James, May 14, 2012 at 4:11 p.m.

    Ridge is right that as of now, promotion relegation would not work (and in many ways, would be unfair to the owners who took the risks to build stadiums, etc.). But never say never (although Bill's wording is a much better expression of that). As professional soccer develops in the US, what will allow promotion/relegation is the development of a solid 2nd division, so that a drop, while financially damaging, would not mean bankruptcy. Jeff's idea allows for a reasonable level of growth (and maybe have some crossover games between MLS1 and MLS2 to keep it interesting and lessen the differences as the league grows?). Brian F is also right about the tension between justice and excitement (which I would argue is part of the game itself, since soccer is either frustrating or wonderful (depending on which team you want to win) because in so many games the team that would seem to be the dominant team loses). While the playoffs provide the excitement and a chance for everyone now, my hope is that someday the Open Cup would provide that excitement/anyone can win outlet, while the league rewards the team that is the best over the course of the season. And I hope that one day we will have the single table with promotion/relegation battles making every game meaningful (though we still need to generate the interest in the spots 3-8 or so that the Champions League entrance generates). I man can dream, can't he Ridge?

  12. R2 Dad, May 14, 2012 at 10:59 p.m.

    I think the dilution of talent by adding too many teams too quickly is a bigger deterrent to MLS development than the lame playoff schedule--but it's close. Why follow the league before the end of summer?

  13. Carlos Thys, May 15, 2012 at 12:57 p.m.

    Unless the MLS leadership really flubs up, soccer/real football will grow in the USA and in Canada. There is no denying this; it is (as it has been over the last 20 years) inevitable. And growth will proceed even a bit faster in the next 8 - 10 years. The main thing to avoid is spending too much money. Example: Raul the Spaniard was probably asking a utopian fee to be wooed by a MLS franchise. Probably just as AC Milan's defender Nesta is doing. The MLS league and clubs need to avoid the temptations of taking on players like these. All that said to say this: I fully disagree with the author. Promotion and relegations can indeed work here. Why U.S. baseball has not done it is beyond me. Example: If one is a Baltimore Orioles fan (or a Cubs fan for most of the Cubs existence), what can be more riveting and nail-biting than the last month of the season as "dropping down" must be avoided? I have sat in Euro league stadia where the hosting club was facing the drop. It is palpable tension; it fills the seats. It galvanizes the true fans. It tickles the fancy of the media. It is real drama. (And, on the very negative side, it brings in organized crime and corruption like one sees over and over in leagues like Italy's and Turkey's.) So lots of plots and sub-plots. Oh -- and it lights a fire under the legs and rears of players who are only offering up 60 - 70%. Promotion/relegation can indeed work. Think if you are the manager/coach/players of a NASL side right now. Why not dream? Why not work to that dream? Why not create your own Cinderella story that results in a glorious promotion to the top tier? If done right and with cool heading planning it, managing it, this can work very well. And the USA media would latch onto it. It would be a very favorable contrast to the stodgy leagues that feature teams like the Cleveland Browns, St. Louis Rams, Charlotte Hornets, and Cleveland Indians who often have no real reason to try to win and play their best. Soccer in the USA could show up all the "traditional" US sports leagues.

  14. Michael Dempsey, May 15, 2012 at 2:03 p.m.

    The notion that promotion and relegation could work in the US is nonsense. Until just a couple of years ago, MLS had to pay networks to get national coverage. That has changed, but even though they have both ESPN and NBC paying them now, ratings are still anemic. There is no way MLS would set up the possibility of a New York or LA team being dropped from the league, even if only for one season. No. Way.

    Also, tension caused because two teams are trying to avoid being the losingest is hardly the way to engage the American sports viewer. Americans like see winners, not crummy teams battling it out to avoid punishment.

    That's why playoffs make more sense here. Single table without relegation means that by the end of season, only a couple teams are playing meaningful games. Playoffs expands that just like the threat of relegation does in the foreign leagues.

  15. Carlos Thys, May 16, 2012 at 7:14 a.m.

    I am sure that this discussion has taken place here before. I am sure that those who love this Game and think about it a lot have mulled over many possibilities. All I can say is don't look at it from the perspective of the team that drops. You have to look at this from the vision of a team that builds, that rises from the 4th or 3d tier to reach the very pinnacle. Despite all their ups and downs of the 2011-12 season, QPR's "season" is now a success. They stayed up! And that meant a lot to their fans, their backers, sponsors. But I believe QPR's collective euphoria was much greater at this time last year as they has won promotion after so many years of being lowly. From the fans' perspective: Their agonizing saga to regain the top was...finally achieved! (in May 2011) Just yesterday this story was matched in Germany with Fortuna Duesseldof returning to top flight by besting odds-on favorite Hertha BSC Berlin in an away-home dual. Look at the newspapers, the media, the streets, the excitement and indescribable enthusiasm that Fortuna Duesseldorf is now riding. Do it; go online and view what your browser will show you. That could be a club from Charleston. Pittsburgh. Baltimore. Or Atlanta. Mr. Dempsey, the NY Red Bulls might, say, drop in year 2018. What's to say that there won't be already a top flight New York Cosmos or another NYC metropolitan team that is top flight already at that time -- if we have instituted promotion/relegation? And wouldn't the fear of being supplanted (the perils of loss of media attention, advertising partners, fan base) by another NYC franchise galvanize the New York Red Bulls management to do better with fan interactions/sponsors and media relations/community relations? Frankly, I don't care what the Jerry Jones types want. Plus, I'd show even eternal buffoon tycoons like Jerry Jones that clubs that drop to the second division often experience what is illogical: Fan base increases, more tickets sold, fans see the "effort to regain top flight" as a saga, as a "Mission!" and, once more, the media latches on to the "compelling story." Fans affinity for a club, their devotion to it grows -- it often does not diminish. Just as what will happen in Germany with Hertha Berlin, 1.F.C. Cologne, and 1.F.C. Kaiserslautern over the next 3 years as all three will battle and likely regain the top tier. Fans get excited when a team like Kaiserslautern will next season dominate the second division and "be the talk of" that league and media darling for that league. Also this all requires much better sports managers. More intelligence, more planning. More savvy. Again: Think Richmond, Tampa, Dayton, St. Louis...oh, the possibilities of new blood at the very top! Can't you see getting the wonderful stories of improbable NCAA Division I rejects leading a St. Louis or Richmond club into the MLS....Nothing is worse than stagnant. Failures should be punished; achievements REWARDED. Excuse me, folks, but THAT is the American way.

  16. Jeff Callan, May 16, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.

    Bravo Carlos ... The hard part is that currently these are all separate "leagues". I believe we need MLS to continue to grow and to split into the muliple divisions that can then have promotion and relegation. They could even keep the single entity structure for some time if they do it this way. We might be a few years before the league is big enough to do this. I think we need at least 24 teams to have an MLS1 and an MLS2 ... but the league should start planning for this now. Plan to get to 24 teams, then have 1 season where the top half the following year are in MLS1 and the bottom half are in MLS2. Then pro/rel can begin immediately from there. Get to 36 teams and we could have 3 divisions ... Imagine that.

  17. Jeff Callan, May 16, 2012 at 11:03 a.m.

    Also ... the J-League started in '93 and they have somehow survived even with having promotion and relegation. They grew by promoting teams from the 2nd division. MLS could do the same given certain other conditions, probably some payment to MLS by the team (like today's expansion fee) and having the proper facility to play in. J-league now has 18 in the JL1 with 3 relegation places every year.

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